Empire Star

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Empire Star
Delany Empire-Star.jpg
First edition
Author Samuel R. Delany
Illustrator Jack Gaughan
Cover artist Jack Gaughan
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science Fiction
Publisher Ace Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 102 pp
OCLC 3735322
For other uses, see Empire Star (disambiguation).

Empire Star is a 1966 science fiction novella by Samuel R. Delany. It is often published together with another book, most frequently (three times) with The Ballad of Beta-2. Delany hoped to have it first published as part of an Ace Double with Babel-17, but instead it was published with Tree Lord of Imeten by Tom Purdom. It was finally bundled with Babel-17 in a 2001 reprint.

The story revolves around the protagonist, Comet Jo, and a narrator named Jewel. Nominally a tale of Comet Jo’s coming-of-age, his education into galactic society (and as such can be considered a mini-Bildungsroman), his efforts to deliver an important message to Empire Star, and the attempt to bring an end to slavery, the story has several layered loops of events which run back upon themselves—and the concepts, layering, and ordering of the events are as important as the story itself.

Plot summary[edit]

As the narrative opens, we meet Comet Jo at eighteen years of age. He has spent his entire life in a "simplex" society on Rhys, a satellite of a Jovian planet orbiting Tau Ceti. (At first it might seem that "simplex" means "simple" or "unintelligent," but after Jo's encounter with the "Geodesic Survey Station" at the latest, it will be clear the notion is much more complicated.) Jo comes upon the wreckage of a spacecraft and encounters two survivors. The first is quickly dying and asks Jo to bring an important message to Empire Star moments before passing away. The other is a lifeform known as Jewel. Jewel is a tritovian in crystallized form, and in that state can easily view situations from several points of view, thus enabling narration from the point of view of the omniscient observer.

Jo quickly leaves Rhys in an attempt to deliver the message to Empire Star, and on his journey he meets several other characters along with a race of creatures known as the Lll. The Lll are incredible builders—not merely of structures, but of ecosystems, societies, and ethical systems. As such, they have been enslaved. However, in order to protect the Lll, the Empire has created a phenomenon known as “the sadness of the Lll”—any being who owns the Lll suffers from a constant, overpowering sadness. This sadness increases geometrically with each Lll owned and with how much each Lll builds, so it is only possible to own a few Lll at a time. Indeed, just being in the presence of the Lll is a heartbreaking experience for even non-owners, a lesson that Jo learns early in his travels.

The story then follows Jo over the next few months. Once he reaches a certain point in his maturity, knowledge, and ability to perceive events around him, the linear narrative stops and the reader is left with a few pages of important events not arranged in a strict order; by this point, the reader may have learned enough to sort out the tangle.

Along the way, several questions are raised, either explicitly or implicitly. What is the message that Comet Jo must deliver? Who is coming to free the Lll? Will the Lll ever actually be freed? Is the story a closed loop, or is there indeed an end (or at least a point at which events move on past the ones mentioned in the story)? Who, exactly, entered the Empire Star? How many of the events of the story are arranged by those people?

Characters in "Empire Star"[edit]

  • Comet Jo: Eighteen years old, the product of a simplex culture.
  • Jewel: A tritovian (presumably a non-human life form) who spends most of the story in a passive, crystallized form. Jewel is also the narrator of the tale.
  • Charona: The guardian of the gate to the spaceport, Charona and her pet 3-Dog are quite obviously a mythological reference to Charon and Cerberus. Charona is the first person in Empire Star to tell Jo about the concept of simplex/complex/multiplex.
  • San Severina: Owner of seven Lll—far more than any being has ever owned before—who must rebuild eight worlds (along with fifty-two civilizations and thirty-two thousand three hundred and fifty-seven complete and distinct ethical systems) ravaged by war. San Severina is Jo's first tutor in the ways of galactic society. She helps Jo to move past his simplex upbringing and sets him on the path to becoming a multiplex being.
  • Oscar/The Lump: Short for Linguistic Ubiquitous Multiplex, Lump is an artificial lifeform with a Lll-based consciousness and is Comet Jo's companion for much of the text. Towards the end of the story we learn that the Lll whose consciousness Lump is based on is none other than Muels Aranlyde. ("Muels Aranlyde" is an anagram of "Samuel R. Delany".) The LUMp said his use of "Oscar" was a literary allusion and since the person he originally claimed to be waiting for was Alfred Douglas, he is alluding to Oscar Wilde, Douglas's friend and lover.
  • Ni Ty Lee: A young poet who seems to have experienced all that Jo, or anyone else for that matter, has experienced.
  • The Princess: Stowaway on a military vessel headed for Empire Star. She is two years younger than Jo when they first meet, but she turns out to be a young San Severina.

Major themes[edit]

Empire Star shares themes and certain imagery with many of Delany’s other works – perception being the prime theme of this novella. While his Fall of the Towers trilogy (Captives of the Flame [Out of the Dead City, Delany's original and preferred title], The Towers of Toron, and City of a Thousand Suns) brought perception into play, Empire Star embraces it as central to the work in the concept of simplex/complex/multiplex: three different ways for an individual to perceive and order events. In following Comet Jo’s experiences over the course of a few months, what the reader perceives to be the order of events is not necessarily the order that would be perceived by other characters or entities, depending on their frame of reference and whether they view things "simplexually," "complexually," or "multiplexually." In our frame of reference, consequences of events sometimes impinge on the characters before the actual events seem to have occurred. Conversely, events are mentioned as having occurred, while the actual results of those events do not seem to effect characters who are chronologically older than they were at the time the events happened. Similarly, characters are introduced and then later appear as younger versions of themselves.

Towards the end of the story we learn that Empire Star itself is a small region in space-time that is under such incredible stress that it is likely one will exit at a vastly different time and place in relation to the point of entry. While not time travel in the classical sense, visitors to Empire Star become subject to time paradoxes. The tale we read in Empire Star is but one arc in the many loops that we can only infer must make up the entire story.

Mythology, another theme that finds its way into much of Delany's work, plays a small part here, as well. There is also a strong literary theme. One character is a writer, another is a poet, and there are many literary allusions (some explicitly mentioned) scattered throughout the novella. In much the way Alfred Bester's Stars My Destination (1957) is based on Alexandre Dumas, père's The Count of Monte Cristo, Delany's Empire Star is based on Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). Stendhal's novel tells of the political and social education of the naive young Italian Fabrice del Dongo by the Duchess Sanseverina and Count Mosca over a number of years. Delany has taken from Standhal's famous work the name Sanseverina (and "Oscar" is a slant rhyme for "Mosca") as well as the basic bildungsroman structure for his novella.

Empire Star also contains images and characteristics that Delany uses in several other works, notably in regards to Comet Jo. His brass claws can easily be seen as precursors to the "orchids" worn by the Scorpions in Dhalgren and, like characters throughout Delany's work, it is mentioned (though very much in passing) that Jo bites his fingernails on his non-clawed hand. Additionally, like blind Dan from Nova, the shuttle bums of Empire Star are described as wearing pants held on with rope belts.

Empire Star is considered to be an important precursor to later Delany works. The apparent circular/cyclic nature of the text is a concept further explored in Dhalgren and —in a very different way— the Return to Nevèrÿon series. Additionally, upon reading Babel-17, it is learned that Empire Star was supposedly written by a deceased husband of Rydra Wong, the protagonist of that novel. The husband's name is Muels Aranlyde. It is stated that he always writes himself as a character in his books, but typically not as a human. More often than not he is a computer—as in Empire Star. While spread over two books, it was always Delany's intention to have Empire Star published as a double novel with Babel-17. This, therefore, is a forerunner to the "text-within-a-text" style found in later works such as Dhalgren and Phallos. In fact, the link to Phallos is even stronger: In Delany's 2007 novel Dark Reflections, the careful reader learns that Arnold Hawley —the main protagonist of Dark Reflections— was actually the anonymous author of Phallos (the fictional novel discussed and quoted inside Delany's novel of the same name).



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